Writing Tools

The Chinese Typewriter

9 March 2018

From The London Review of Books:

Nominally a book that covers the rough century between the invention of the telegraph in the 1840s and that of computing in the 1950s, The Chinese Typewriter is secretly a history of translation and empire, written language and modernity, misguided struggle and brutal intellectual defeat. The Chinese typewriter is ‘one of the most important and illustrative domains of Chinese techno-linguistic innovation in the 19th and 20th centuries … one of the most significant and misunderstood inventions in the history of modern information technology’, and ‘a historical lens of remarkable clarity through which to examine the social construction of technology, the technological construction of the social, and the fraught relationship between Chinese writing and global modernity’. It was where empires met.

. . . .

Long before it could be a technological reality, the Chinese typewriter was a famous non-object. In 1900, the San Francisco Examiner described a mythical Chinatown typewriter with a 12-foot keyboard and 5000 keys. The joke caught on, playing to Western conceptions of the Chinese language as incomprehensible, impractical and above all baroque: cartoons showed mandarins in flowing robes, clambering up and down staircases of keys or key-thumping in caverns. ‘After all,’ Thomas Mullaney writes, ‘if a Chinese typewriter is really the size of two ping-pong tables put together, need anything more be said about the deficiencies of the Chinese language?’ To many Western eyes, the characters were so exotic that they seemed to raise philosophical, rather than mechanical, questions. Technical concerns masqueraded as ‘irresolvable Zen kōans’: ‘What is Morse code without letters? What is a typewriter without keys?’ A Chinese typewriter was an oxymoron.

The earliest alphabetic typewriters were devised at a time when orthographic Darwinism was fashionable. In the 1850s, the naturalist Henry Noel Humphreys suggested that the Chinese ‘never carried the art of writing to its legitimate development in the creation of a perfect phonetic alphabet’. Bernhard Karlgren, in his Philology and Ancient China (1926), led a vanguard of alphabetic supremacists, arguing for the characters to be replaced with a phonetic system. Over the following decades, scholars would even suggest that the writing system, by depressing literacy, ‘inhibited the development of a democratic literate culture’. More recently, Derk Bodde and William Hannas have claimed that the Chinese writing system inhibits creativity and the capacity for independent thought. These are corollaries of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which holds, in its strongest forms, that language limits thought. A language incompatible with typewriter keys was incompatible with modernity, and bespoke an equally incompatible country.

. . . .

With the dominance of Remington’s single-shift machine over its competitors, index and double-keyboard typewriters that promised greater flexibility for non-Western languages faded from view. Decades of ‘minimal modification’ followed, reaching peak futility in the system adopted to send messages by telegraph, which required operators to familiarise themselves with 6800 characters assigned a code between 0001 and 9999, a task about as conducive to productivity as memorising pi. ‘Whether Morse code, braille, stenography, typewriting, Linotype, Monotype, punched-card memory, text-encoding, dot matrix printing, word processing, ASCII, personal computing, optical character recognition, digital typography, or a host of other examples from the past two centuries,’ Mullaney writes, ‘each of these systems was developed first with the Latin alphabet in mind, and only later “extended” to encompass non-Latin alphabets.’ For nearly two centuries, China had been a left-handed kid in a world of right-handed scissors.

. . . .

By the early 20th century, baihua, or ‘plain speech’, reformers were making arguments that recall Boulez’s line about having to set the Louvre on fire before civilisation can be freed. The founder of the Communist Party, Chen Duxiu, was among those calling for a ‘literary revolution’, a revolt against the ‘ornate, sycophantic literature of the aristocracy’ and in favour of the ‘plain, expressive literature of the people’. Baihuaproponents were also driven, at least in part, by frustration at decades of effort to reconcile Chinese characters and Western-derived systems. The early script reformer Qian Xuantong argued that the reform of systems had to begin with characters, ‘if we wish to get rid of the average person’s childish, naive and barbaric ways of thinking’.

. . . .

Unlike moveable type, which developed in China earlier and independently of the West, the typewriter has always been a foreign import. As such, its most successful inventors have tended to be boundary-walkers themselves, versed in both cultures if not entirely fluent in both scripts. The first machine marketed as a ‘Chinese typewriter’ was invented in 1888 by the American missionary Devello Sheffield, his goal less to create a typewriter than to replace the missionary’s intermediary, the opinionated Chinese clerk. ‘They usually talk to their writer,’ Sheffield wrote, ‘and he takes down with a pen what has been said, and later puts their work into Chinese literary style … The finished product will be found to have lost in this process no slight proportion of what the writer wished to say, and to have taken on quite as large a proportion of what the Chinese assistant contributed to the thought.’

. . . .

Part of the problem with these early typewriters is that they didn’t much resemble typewriters. The typewriter’s attraction was not only its usefulness, but its cultural cachet. One thinks of the famous image of Chinese dignitaries gathered around a Gatling gun. The point was being in a position to announce: ‘We have the technology!’ Inventors worried that if the typewriter were altered for the Chinese market, ‘the resulting machine [might] prove entirely illegible and unrecognisable to the Western eye … And if unrecognisable to the world as a typewriter, would it be a “typewriter” at all?’ And so it is unsurprising that engineer Shu Zhendong’s eminently typewriter-like typewriter was the first to be mass-manufactured. The Commercial Press in Shanghai, Republican China’s busiest printer, sold at least 100 units a year of ‘the Shu-style typewriter’ between 1917 and 1934 to customers as various as the Chinese Consulate in Canada and the Chinese postal service.

. . . .

Briefly, following Japan’s defeat, Chinese manufacturers were able to reclaim the market by selling copycat Wanneng machines, or even selling Wanneng machines directly, without pretensions to originality or patriotism. One Shanghai company sold a ‘People’s Welfare Typewriter’ – slapping a name borrowed from Sun Yat-sen on a Wanneng. The Communist government engaged in the same practices on a grander scale, seizing the Japanese Typewriter Company and rechristening it the Red Star Typewriter Company. In the 1950s, resistance to Japanese machines finally collapsed: the Shanghai Chinese Typewriter Manufacturers Association was created out of a consortium of ten Chinese typewriter companies – their enduring legacy would be the ‘Double Pigeon’, a sprightly Wanneng-based number that would dominate the market for decades to come.

Link to the rest at The London Review of Books

Here’s a link to The Chinese Typewriter

 

How To Use Dictation For A Healthier Writing Life

28 January 2018

From The Creative Penn:

The word ‘writing’ has become associated with hitting keys on a keyboard to make letters appear on a screen or inscribing by hand onto paper.

But the end result is a mode of communication from one brain to another through the medium of words. Those words can be generated by your voice, just as people can ‘read’ by listening to an audiobook.

Famous authors who have written with dictation include diverse creatives John Milton (Paradise Lost), Dan Brown, Henry James, Barbara Cartland and Winston Churchill. When Terry Pratchett, fantasy author of the Discworld series, developed Alzheimer’s Disease, he found he couldn’t write anymore, so he moved to dictation in his final years.

. . . .

So, why dictate?

(1) Health reasons

You can dictate standing up or while walking, or lying in bed with injuries, or if pain stops you typing.

I started using dictation when I had RSI and used it to write the first drafts of Destroyer of Worlds and also Map of Shadows, plus some chapters for this book, which I dictated while walking along the canal towpath.

Dictation can help alleviate or prevent pain right now, but learning how to write with dictation can also future-proof your living as a writer in case of problems later.

(2) Writing speed and stamina

Dictation is faster at getting words on the page than typing, especially if you are not self-censoring.

I’ve made it up to around 5000 words per hour with dictation, while I only manage around 1500 words per hour typing.

There is a trade-off with ‘finished’ words as you will have to at least lightly edit to correct transcription issues, but if you want to get that first draft done faster, then dictation can be the most effective way.

Link to the rest at The Creative Penn

During his professional career, PG has dictated approximately a trillion letters and documents (give or take), but he’s never been able to comfortably dictate anything remotely creative. Of course, while he was doing this, he usually had a couple of very intelligent secretaries/assistants/paralegals who turned is spoken words into something that wouldn’t get him disbarred. Alas, those valuable people have turned to more remunerative and fulfilling pastimes when PG moved into executive roles in some large organizations which occupied him for quite a few years..

However, Joanna has given him incentive to try dictation again. We’ll see how it goes.

Don’t like the way you write? An artificial intelligence app promises to polish your prose

17 January 2018

From Quartz:

I am a professional writer, but I often hate my writing. I wish it was more concise and powerful. And it certainly doesn’t read as smoothly as the work of my literary heroes. Recently, I began to wonder: Could a software program make me better at my job?

The Hemingway App, an online writing editor created in 2013 by brothers Adam and Ben Long, promises to do just that. “Hemingway makes your writing bold and clear,” the site claims, so that “your reader will focus on your message, not your prose.” If you listen to the app’s advice, it will rid your writing of run-on sentences, needless adverbs, passive voice, and opaque words. There’s no guarantee you’ll crank out the next Farewell to Arms—but the goal is to get you closer to Ernest Hemingway’s clear, minimalist style.

The app uses a crude artificial intelligence that recognizes writing problems through natural language processing. When you copy and paste your text into the Hemingway Editor, it highlights sentences with possible issues in different colors and offers suggested changes. For example, if I write, “This Editor has been used since around 2013,” the words “been used” are highlighted green because I am using the passive voice.

Most of the recommendations offered by the Hemingway App are based on research into readability—that is, how easy it is to understand a given text.

. . . .

I also ignored some of the app’s suggestions. A few were just nonsensical. It suggested I replace the word “demonstrate” with simpler synonyms “prove” or “show,” but I was talking about people going to airports to protest. I rejected other suggestions for stylistic reasons. The app wanted me to remove “really” from the sentence “As it turns out, protest size really does matter.” But I wanted to keep the conversational tone.

In the end, I was able to bring the grade level of my story down from 13 to nine, and shed 34 words along the way. Then I gave the updated version to Kira Bindrim—a Quartz editor who’d edited the original story.

“I think my gut reaction is to prefer the original,” Bindrim wrote to me after reading the Hemingway version.

Link to the rest at Quartz

PG wonders if there’s an app that really works for professional authors.

PG also suggests that Hemingway might crash if he fed some typical legal documents into it.

Inside One of America’s Last Pencil Factories

15 January 2018

From The New York Times:

A pencil is a little wonder-wand: a stick of wood that traces the tiniest motions of your hand as it moves across a surface. I am using one now, making weird little loops and slashes to write these words. As a tool, it is admirably sensitive. The lines it makes can be fat or thin, screams or whispers, blocks of concrete or blades of grass, all depending on changes of pressure so subtle that we would hardly notice them in any other context. (The difference in force between a bold line and nothing at all would hardly tip a domino.) And while a pencil is sophisticated enough to track every gradation of the human hand, it is also simple enough for a toddler to use.

Such radical simplicity is surprisingly complicated to produce. Since 1889, the General Pencil Company has been converting huge quantities of raw materials (wax, paint, cedar planks, graphite) into products you can find, neatly boxed and labeled, in art and office-supply stores across the nation: watercolor pencils, editing pencils, sticks of charcoal, pastel chalks. Even as other factories have chased higher profit margins overseas, General Pencil has stayed put, cranking out thousands upon thousands of writing instruments in the middle of Jersey City.

. . . .

Other parts of the factory are eruptions of color. Red pencils wait, in orderly grids, to be dipped into bright blue paint. A worker named Maria matches the color of her shirt and nail polish to the shade of the pastel cores being manufactured each week. One of the company’s signature products, white pastels, have to be made in a dedicated machine, separated from every other color. At the tipping machine, a whirlpool of pink erasers twists, supervised patiently by a woman wearing a bindi.

. . . .

In an era of infinite screens, the humble pencil feels revolutionarily direct: It does exactly what it does, when it does it, right in front of you. Pencils eschew digital jujitsu. They are pure analog, absolute presence. They help to rescue us from oblivion. Think of how many of our finest motions disappear, untracked — how many eye blinks and toe twitches and secret glances vanish into nothing. And yet when you hold a pencil, your quietest little hand-dances are mapped exactly, from the loops and slashes to the final dot at the very end of a sentence.

Link to the rest at The New York Times and thanks to Nate at The Digital Reader for the tip.

PG recommends you go to the OP to see wonderful photos of industrial age machinery with contrasting bright colors of colored pencils.

If you are having problems accessing the story, here’s PG’s tip for the day for those of you using a Chrome browser: Right Click on the NYT link above, then choose the third item from the top in the drop-down menu – “Open link in incognito window” and you may find success.

Better Writing Begins with the Right Tools

12 January 2018

From JSTOR Daily:

I have a theory that for writers, digital writing tools are just as influential as the mason’s choice of a particular compass or square.

Historian Lon Shelby wrote extensively about the building practices of the medieval masons behind the creation of such cathedrals as Chartres, iconic buildings that owe their creation and execution to the specific tools masons adopted for measurement and layout. “[U]ntil the history of their tools is adequately described,” Shelby writes, “the achievements of medieval masons cannot be properly evaluted from a technological point of view.” Shelby locates the geometry of these iconic buildings in the specific types of compass and square that masons had access to in the medieval era.

Is it really so different for current-day scribes? It’s not hard to goad writers into drawing virtual blood by asking them to expound on the relative merits of Ulysses and Bear, Markdown and rich text, or Microsoft Word vs Google Docs. And who isn’t a writer these days? From academics and students to corporate bloggers and analysts, there are few professionals who don’t spend at least some of their time cranking out paragraphs. Email alone ensures that most of us distribute more words per day than our grandparents might have sent forth in a year.

For all the time we spend cranking out words at a keyboard, however, we rarely stop to ask how all that keyboard time affects the way we write and communicate. It’s not just the keyboard that shapes our prose, of course; far more influential is the software in which we do our writing. That’s why it pays to think about what we want from our writing tools: not just as individual writers and communicators, but as readers and human beings with a stake in the ongoing evolution of our written culture.

The impact of our writing environment is on my mind because my writing process has just been transformed by Scrivener, an writing application I purchased several years ago but have only begun to properly use. I am a bit of a software junkie, so there’s nothing unusual about me trying out a new app as part of my endless quest for productivity perfection, or returning to an app I’ve tinkered with in order to take it for a more dedicated spin. I regularly cycle through new email clients, task managers, note-taking applications, data analysis tools, and image editors.

. . . .

If you’ve been using the same writing software for years and years, as I have, it’s easy to stop thinking about the impact your tools have on the day-to-day experience of writing. For the past decade, almost all my short-form writing has been drafted in Evernote, and for twenty-five years, all my long-form writing has taken place in Microsoft Word. I’m not giving up either of those tools, but spending the past month writing in Scrivener has reminded me that new tools enable new thoughts and new ways of working.

Because Scrivener makes it so easy to slice up and reorganize pieces of a document, it profoundly changes the process of writing and revision, and the balance between them.

. . . .

Matthew Kirchenbaum has written an entire book on the impact of word processing, the seeds of which appear in his article on how it transformed the work of John Updike:

Like many others [Updike] was at first captivated by the strange new device, declaring it “dazzling” more than once. Evidence of writers test driving their first word processor is a minor genre in their personal papers. One of the best known examples comes from Russell Banks when he was writing the novel that became Affliction: “STILL VERY MUCH LEARNING TO THINK ON THIS MACHINE,” he wrote in all caps at the beginning of a document that is a kind of stream-of-consciousness exploration of its capabilities. “STRANGE EXPERIENCE, UNFAMILIAR MIXTURE OF SPEED AND SLOWDOWN.” A similar page by Salman Rushdie survives in his collection at Emory University. Stephen King, meanwhile, wrote a short story, “The Word Processor,” which was published in Playboy and stands as the first extended fictional treatment of the technology.

The kinds of praise that many writers, students, and writing teachers lavished on the emergent technology of word processing points to the very particular ways it changed the practice of writing. In an anecdotal assessment of her college students’ use of word processing in her English, Dawn Rodrigues writes that

I observed various ways in which the computer was affecting my students’ progress. First of all, the computer seemed to help reduce the students’ writing apprehension. Students who at the beginning of the semester wrote (in early journal entries) of being nervous about writing showed no anxiety at all as the course progressed. For instance, one student who couldn’t even think of an idea for a journal entry on the second day of class blossomed when he began writing on the computer. He explained in his journal that he wasn’t afraid to express himself because he knew that he could immediately delete any sentences which embarrassed him. Another student said that he liked writing with computers because he forgot to worry about what he was saying. He just enjoyed seeing the words appear.

. . . .

I’m no stranger to doing large-scale edits in Word; there was lots of big-picture rearranging involved in writing my dissertation, and later, in writing my series of ebooks. But it was a painful process, because Word (like most word processors and text editors) is set up as if the complete article (or essay, or report, or book) is the fundamental unit of work. Sure, you can move stuff around by cutting and pasting, but you have very limited options for keeping the overall structure of your work in mind as you do. Word is fundamentally a tool designed to facilitate the modest changes described by Collier.

Scrivener, on the other hand, is set up to facilitate what Dave and Russell refer to as “global revision.” It encourages writers to slice their work up into the smallest viable units: not just chapters or even sections, but individual scenes, quotes or arguments. (To write this article in Scrivener, I imported each of the quotes you read above as individual documents, so that I could pull them in and rearrange them at will.) When you look at your work through the constant lens of its component parts, it’s much easier to undertake ambitious restructuring—not just technically easier, but conceptually easier, because you can see the parts that make up the whole.

Link to the rest at JSTOR Daily

PG still misses WordPerfect.

An Exemplary Mouse

20 October 2017

PG just wore out a lovely mouse.

Fortunately, he had a spare so his online life could continue without tears.

Animal cruelty had nothing to do with this. It was the other kind of mouse, the one his hand grasps many times during a day without the conscious intervention of his mind. PG suspects that, over many years of computing, his brain has developed a lobe devoted entirely to sliding his right hand around his desk in precise patterns.

It would be unfair to call PG a mouse connoisseur. He’s not at all snobbish about his mice. French designs and limited edition mice hold no attraction for him.

He is, however, persnickety about his mice. Long ago, he learned he could work faster and longer at a computer if he used something other than the cheapo mouse that arrived in the same box as as a new computer. He is similarly particular about his keyboards.

PG doesn’t regard his high finger and palm standards as moral failings. Collecting Italian sports cars is far more expensive.

For a long time, PG was partial to a couple of different Logitech mice and used each until his palm wore off the silkscreened company logos and they stopped working.

A couple of years ago, PG had a wrist problem that required a wrap. Unfortunately, it was his mouse wrist and the wrap made it difficult to use his mouse.

A family member suggested an ergonomic mouse made by a company called Anker. PG had tried a couple of ergonomic mice in past years and found them both overly expensive and, while comfortable, not terribly good at being mice. Evidently the manufacturers had put all their money into the cases and scrimped on the quality of the inner works.

Back to Anker. Here’s a photo:

Here’s a photo of a hand belonging to an unidentified human holding the mouse:

.

PG was not instantly adept with this mouse, but his wrist felt better and, over the course of a couple hours, using the mouse became automatic (perhaps his large brain lobe had something to do with that). And the mouse was comfortable. In a few days, the wrap went away but the mouse stayed.

Tweaking photos often requires much more precise mouse control than dealing with documents, so PG used his prior mouse with Photoshop and Lightroom for a few weeks, but the Anker quickly came to dominate his right hand for all purposes.

Did PG mention that this mouse doesn’t cost a lot of money?

PG had looked at ergonomic mice prior to learning about the Anker and typically prices ranged from $75-150 on Amazon. The Anker mouse currently sells for $19.99.

PG keeps a spare mouse as a backup (although this is the first of the Ankers to wear out) plus another in the computer bag he takes on trips, so the demise of his original Anker mouse (with the logo mostly worn off) has not slowed down PG a bit (although he has, of course, been distracted enough to write this post).

Here’s a link to PG’s favorite mouse of all time.

Your carpals and metacarpals will thank you.

Why Digital Note-Taking Will Never Replace the Physical Journal

3 October 2017

From The Literary Hub:

 Some fortunate writers possess steel-trap memories and rarely need to jot things down. Their images and ideas materialize, as if on cue, when required for the cauldron of composition. Most, however, have developed different methods for taking research notes and roughing out early drafts. They collect scribbled-on scraps of paper, bar napkins, the backs of receipts, whatever is at hand, on their roundabout way to the writing table. Others thumb-type notes or pencil marginalia in books they happen to be reading. Still others dictate memos for later transcription. The most sensible perhaps, myself from time to time among them, keep a pocket notepad handy for capturing a bit of delicious eavesdropped dialogue or observing something, anything, seen or heard or tasted or smelled or touched that might be relevant to whatever writing project they have underway.

My memory is good, but capricious at times. My scraps of paper get misplaced or wind up in the laundry. I don’t want to figure out dictation software. And my thumbs are hopeless, which is only part of the reason I hate texting. In an era of smart phones, palm-sized digital cameras, and featherweight laptops—also known as “notebooks”—the very idea of lugging around a heavy, folio-sized, hardcover Boorum & Pease record-ruled 9-300-R ledger or oversized black spiral-bound artist sketchbook, would seem at once masochistic and medieval. Yet, these behemoths, straight out of some Dickensian accountant’s office or landscape architect’s atelier, have served as my notebooks of choice for well over 20 years.

I don’t tend to use my notebooks as diaries or journals. With rare exceptions, everything that I write, draw, paste, and tape in them has to do only with the novel I’m currently working on.

. . . .

Why do all this? Why carry around this antiquated technology? It would have been far quicker and easier to snap pictures of those gravestones and petroglyphs, scan those clippings, maybe set up a computer spreadsheet for my various invented progeny. I’m not, after all, a visual artist by any stretch. And my handwriting has continued to devolve toward illegibility.

Simply put, it has to do with the pure visceral nature of the act. When I draw a castle, a two-trunked willow, a billboard, a bird, the process of limning their outlines and angles—their optical information—makes them, for me, far more animated, individual, and finally more memorable than if I’d photographed them. Similarly, if I manually form the letters of my words, scribe out sentences, snatches of dialogue, however disjointed or inchoate or fragmentary, they register on my consciousness more fully than if I were to type them. This is especially true when I’m researching a novel—the stage in which I’m most impressionable, longing to learn, there at the foot of the mountain I must build as I climb.

Link to the rest at The Literary Hub

PG suggests that any essay that includes the words, “never replace” in the title will almost certainly be erroneous unless the words, “for me” appear somewhere.

7 Free Online Tools for Writers and Authors

24 September 2017

From Digital Book World:

“All you need to be a writer is a pen and paper,” is something you might say if you’re one of those smug savants who can just sit down and write an entire novel longhand.

But for the rest of us? Well, we can take all the help we can get. Naturally, there are the everyday low-fi accessories that every writer should already have in their arsenal, like notebooks and a reliable pen. But there are also a bunch of high tech tools that the interwebs can offer us.

In this post, I’d love to share seven of my favorite free online tools for writers. They’ve helped me to manage my time, improve my creative flow, and publish better material. And, most importantly, they haven’t cost me a dime!

  1. Trello

“Trello…? Is it me you’re looking for?”

Trello was designed as a project management tool for small business organizations, which is exactly where I first came across it. Having used it for my day job for an entire year, I was able to adapt it to my writing work pretty quickly.

Trello is pretty much a virtual cork board — but better. I use it to keep track of small tasks (“buy new ink cartridge”) as well as organize my ideas as and when they occur to me. Best of all, Trello’s bulletin-board style interface lets me create “cards” relating to each section of a book, allowing me to move parts of the manuscript around as I’m grappling with the structure.

. . . .

  1. Buffer

As a writer in 2017, I know it’s a part of my job to maintain my public platform, meagre as it is. At the very least, that means regularly posting words of wisdom and sharing funny writing memes on social media.

I tried a handful of tools like HootSuite that allowed me to schedule social activity ahead of time, but I prefer the simplicity (and price point) of Buffer. Now I just spend 30 minutes scheduling posts every Monday — and for the rest of the week, I’m free to write without distraction. Right?

Well, as you’ll discover in the next section, it’s maybe not that simple…

Link to the rest at Digital Book World

PG doesn’t use Buffer with TPV but he’s a big fan of the tool for other projects involving social media.

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